Writing for Content Mills: How it Can Affect Your Reputation as a Professional Writer

There are probably very few writers who have not been exposed to content mills at one time or another, especially those who have taken the steps to become full-time freelance writers either by choice or necessity. When you first start your writing career as a full-time freelancer it is natural to see dollar signs and not give it a second thought. In addition,  you think you have to begin by writing for free or making minimal pay just to test the waters and find your niche. Writing a few articles for minimal pay will help you get your foot in the door, but you still have to be careful where you post your articles.

One of the mistakes many novices make is becoming involved with content mills and not understanding the importance of looking for better paying writing gigs. They initially see this as a way to make money, but since most content mills hire freelancers on a work-for-hire basis, you are not accomplishing anything more than earning a few pennies on the dollar for the work you perform.  While some content mills pay larger amounts such as Demand Studios that pays $15 for a 400-500 word article and actually puts your name on the article, there are many that want to pay a penny a word or less with no credit to the writer.

The other tactic content mills want to take is pay-per-hit. They expect you to write a perfectly well-written article free of errors, perfect grammar, and well researched, but they don’t want to pay you for it unless people read it! This is a tactic Suite 101 employs completely while Demand Studios tries to encourage its writers to choose those articles from the article pool. They also want to hire writers that have substantial knowledge and experience even though they want to pay very little for those writers. In reality what they are hoping to find is highly experienced hobbyists.

As I already mentioned, there is nothing wrong with building your portfolio by writing for free or low pay, but you have to learn when to stop. You also have to understand that if you don’t receive a byline for the work you do it is not going to help you build a portfolio. Work-for-hire or ghostwriting means you sell the copyright to what you write in exchange for a previously agreed upon price. This means you cannot then or at any time in the future republish that manuscript anywhere either online or offline. If you are looking to build a portfolio writing for a content mill without a byline is not going to provide you with what you need.

Many writers who become involved with content mills doing work-for-hire tend to write articles and other material they would not ordinarily write under other circumstances.  For instance,  I prefer fiction writing but do non-fiction for a living. I would only ghostwrite fiction in genres in which I would not write for myself and even then I may not choose to do so. I once agreed to ghostwrite a fiction book based on the Mafia with the background information provided by the client. I began to have problems collecting what the client owed me for projects I wrote previously, so I told them I would not write the book. However, I have no interest in Mafia-related writing, so it was a genre outside of my interest.

This brings us to the question concerning how this might affect a budding author. If you aren’t getting a byline, you certainly cannot include that work in your portfolio unless you have permission from the author of record. On the other hand, if you receive a byline, isn’t that a good thing? While writing for free or small pay for a website can help build your reputation as an author, you have to look at the source. When I first started looking toward publication in the first five years of 2000, I wrote many articles for an online publication and even became an assistant editor-in-chief and major editor. However, as I began to look toward publishing other material, I had to re-evaluate my involvement since the publication in mind was more interested in quantity than quality.  I also believed it was time to move forward and begin looking for earnestly for paying gigs. However, if you can build your reputation writing a few articles for free for a reputable online or offline publication you will have clips and tear sheets you can use in your portfolio.

On the other hand if you write for content mills, even those that put your name on the work, you may be damaging your future potential. Most content mills are not looking for the high quality writing that is necessary for an author to obtain a contract with a literary journal or other high paying publication. In fact, many print and online magazines look negatively at authors who have published with content mills because in most cases the work is minimally edited and the majority of authors are just looking for a few extra dollars–these are popular outlets for college students and others just needing some extra money.

One of the problems is the content mills target those they know are unfamiliar with the effects of their involvement. I have written for my share and only recently discovered the real scope of the market and how it could affect my future as a professional writer. I won’t say I will never do it again because writing puts bread on my table, but I will be more selective with the clients for whom I write. In the meantime I am seeking other outlets for my work, clients who value my services and wish to pay me a living wage for my writing. After five years as a full-time freelance writer it is time to move forward in my career and look for higher-paying work and perhaps write one article for the same pay I previously received to write five or more articles.

Novice writers need to look to their future and evaluate what they what to do. If you are seeking a career as a writer content mills will have a negative effect on your future reputation. Keep in mind if you published articles in your college newsletter, those are clips you can use in your portfolio. Did you write for your church bulletin or other volunteer organizations? All of these outlets are sources of clips and will help your writing career much more than writing for the content mills.

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